Final day of Postopolis! LA. On the one hand, it’s difficult to believe that the end is in sight (and sad, too); on the other, my tiredness is an indication that, yes, we have been doing this for almost a week now. But the exhilaration associated with the event carries us through the finale and beyond.
Before the evening’s events unfold in predictably unpredictable fashion though, most of the Postopolis! LA organisers, curators and several speakers and guests converge on the SYNTHe urban green roof project in Downtown LA. This is a pretty fantastic project in many ways, and allegedly the ‘first green roof in LA’ (although that’s slightly hard to believe. Or indeed define. Also, conflict of interest alert: Arup Los Angeles were consultants to the project, which I had no idea about until afterward.)
Designed by SCI-Arc teacher Alexis Rochas it’s a laser-cut (increasingly everything in LA is laser-cut) galvanised metal roof, creating a curving landscape on the top of The Flat, a converted Holiday Inn. The roof curves not just for formal experiment but also as sits on top of the varied bulky services that typically adorn such buildings, neatly covering up these air-conditioning units as well as creating a new façade (This aspect of exploring the “fifth façade” of the roof is interesting in itself - given the rise in popularity of both tall buildings and satellite-based mapping like Google Earth, these surfaces are looked down upon as never before. There is no longer any justification not to care about the design of these spaces.)
No two panels up here are alike; each panel is bent to shape (along score marks created by the CNC machines, presumably?) and then snapped into place on-site.
However, the roof is essentially significant due to its productive capacity. The roofing structure is designed with grooves of varying depth, filled with a custom soil mix and then planted with various edible plants which are used by the restaurant at the base of the building (called Blue Velvet. Dennis Hopper not included perhaps fortunately). Food waste from the restaurant (the non-meat stuff, to avoid rodents) is returned to the garden as compost. The residents of the low-income apartments that comprise the rest of The Flat get to tend and use the garden apparently, though its primary function is in this nice closed loop with the restaurant.
Initial concern over heat build-up due the use of the metal was dissipated a little by realising that the reflected heat will reduce the thermal build-up in the building (if more roofs were like this, would it have the same impact as the humanity-saving white paint idea?). And of course green roofs have fantastic qualities in terms of better dealing with stormwater run-off as well as this natural thermal insulation. Still, it was hot up there that day, and it wasn’t summer yet. It’ll be interesting to see how the plants will do when it's hotter than July, but their planting is rotated to match the menu and seasonality, so presumably the plants are selected with climate in mind too.
95% of the planting is edible, with the remaining 5% to brighten the place up (though lavender is there both for ice-cream etc. but also to attract bees to help with pollination.) There was a patch of grass down one ‘terrace’, which was deliberately planted for people to sit on towards the end of the day, as the sun is going down. The view is fairly spectacular from up there, being on the edge of Downtown largely facing away from the high-rises, and being up there with a glass of wine, a book and a sunset would be wonderful. Grass is thirsty, so there plan is to water it until it’s fully bedded in and then let it dry out to form a kind of thickish layer of dry grass matting, which seems smart.
The roof was strong enough to hold a fair few people, as tested by our visitors gathering around Rochas, eager to hear more details about the garden (in fact, one thinks some informatics display illustrating the garden's real-time performance from street level would be interesting (web cam, soil temperature, acidity, moisture etc.). You'd never know it was there from the street.) Still, this garden structure absorbs people very well, creating dramatic, almost heroic, romantic views.
It's an odd but enjoyable feeling being up there. The structure gives a little under foot, contributing slightly to the sense that you shouldn't be up there. But that's derived from our traditional and absurd waste of these spaces. (When I think of Saul Griffiths' concept of 'peak waste', I often interpret it as much spatially as anything else, through wasted roofs, under-used office space, inefficient systems like car parks and the like.)
There are always loading issues when retrofitting existing buildings with green roofs, as wet soil can get very heavy. Rochas explained a special soil mix reduced the load. Irrigation is by hand at the moment, via volunteers who look after the garden, but they’re keen to get “robots” to do the watering in future.
I’m not sure how much food it generates, or indeed what is used by the restaurant. At lunch after, it’s clear that a very small percentage of the restaurant’s needs could be catered for by the garden, just as the restaurant would produce far more compost than the garden could possibly handle. So the loop is a little out of kilter. However, the project remains inspirational. Standing up there, looking down onto thousands of square metres of non-productive, non-useful roof space, just sitting there in the sun soaking up heat, wasting energy and giving nothing back to the city, you realise you’re standing on a structure and a system that could be 'cut-and-paste' across all those roofs, utterly changing the city. [More SYNTHe photos here and lots more detail on the project here]
If it had only demonstrated this, it would have been a great project, but it's fascinating and engaging on numerous levels. It’s perhaps the primary project I’ve talked to people about since I got back to Australia, just as Benjamin Bratton’s talk tonight was and remains the most thought-provoking presentation.
And as such, SYNTHe echoed one of the primary themes emerging from the week’s work. Oddly enough - or perhaps not oddly at all - car-bound, concrete-covered LA is home to numerous thriving projects, at all scales, that engage with food production, gardens and other productive landscapes. Not least in the work of Fritz Haeg, Ari Kletzky, Fallen Fruit, Greenmeme and others speaking at Postopolis! but also visible elsewhere around the city.
Perhaps the other themes emerging from the week, for me at least, would gravitate around the complex form of LA itself (I always learn so much from the cities that conferences are held in that it should be listed as a formal component of the conference) and the palpable sense of innovation around the place.
Directly related to my work, the talks by Ben Cerveny, Eric Rodenbeck, Patrick Keller, Christian Moeller, Robert Miles Kemp and Bryan Boyer were particularly useful and enlightening.
Another theme would be the increasingly ubiquitous presence of fabrication tools, techniques and practice: through laser-cutting, CNC machines and sometimes rapid prototyping. Evidence of this is everywhere. You walk into any restaurant, bar or shop and you’re likely to be looking past a complex undulating roof structure or a panelised screen etched, scored and punctured to within an inch of its life. On a recent trip to London, I was struck by the preponderance of large LED screens around the city; here it’s laser-cut structures of varying scales. (Is that due to lack of sunshine in London and excess of same in California?!)
More significantly of course, its influence is visible at larger scale in the work of Eric Owen Moss and others emerging in and around the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), with many documented in the edition of A+U I mentioned earlier. This work exemplifies the looming, benevolent influence of SCI-Arc on ‘the scene’ here. Just as certain universities provided a silent backdrop to Postopolis! New York, here SCI-Arc is behind a lot of the work and thinking here, often to great effect (a note to follow on that).
This emphasis on fabrication has a long history in Los Angeles architecture, design and engineering, not least due to the ability to borrow tools and techniques from the car design industry so strong around here. And before that, an earlier wave of LA designers like Neutra, Eames, Lustig et al relied on the skills and craft of the boat-building industry. So this concern with fabrication and industrial design has a long and honourable history here, yet it feels like this is allied with an increasingly broad intellectual framework. Again, this is perhaps a sign of SCI-Arc at work.
In an occasionally oblique interview at Archinect, current director of SCI-Arc Eric Owen Moss talked a little about this. About “those people understanding, utilizing and applying new technical skills; milling skills, CNC skills, vacuum forming skills, laser cutting skills, all of the 3D forming skills, parametric drawing and BIM skills, and so on. But what you want, are the students who can combine those tools with conceptual skills ... you want students who are not interested in (only tools) but also interested in conception, idea, fabrication.”
He had earlier stated:
“Sci Arc is not a trade school. We still have the capacity to satisfy the requirements of accreditation boards. However, our objective has always been to create independent, critical and intellectual students. I think the point is, to teach a group of students to deal with complicated subjects, in a clear coherent way. To speak to the world they are going into, and not to speak to the architects only. The architects as professionals have the problem of only talking the language of their profession. In the process of doing buildings nowadays, especially the bigger projects, architects have to have the capacity to talk and work with many people who are not necessarily architects. This is very important. So, we have many people coming from different areas lecturing on philosophy, science, engineering, fabrication, history. We are bringing in the usual and the unusual voices into the profession to develop that capacity to think, understand and analyze. And after that, the students have to go out into the world and find a way to make their critical and intellectual capacities useful and productive.” [Interview with Eric Owen Moss at Archinect]
This points to another theme of Postopolis! LA: that of architects and other designers increasingly engaging in fields outside their traditional discipline boundaries, working in multi-disciplinary collaborations often focused on deploying ‘design thinking’ to the broader themes of the day. Not simply solving problems but framing questions. Not simply building stuff but helping shape a lens through which to understand and shape our world. This I am all in favour of, with the caveat that it is best done with grace, humility and broad skills and experience. The theme emerged several times, and is perhaps the most interesting area of design at this point. But one also wonders whether it is simply a reaction to the global financial crisis and the vertiginous drop in jobs in architecture and urban development i.e. a need to find a new job, a new role. (Later that evening, Paul Petrunia mentioned that Archinect job listings had plummeted by something like 90% almost overnight.) Fortunately, most of the time at Postopolis! LA, the discussion was a lot deeper than the need to find a new job, not least in Bryan Boyer’s great contribution and some of the local practices’ Q&As with the ArchDaily Duo.
Most of all though, the backdrop to this Postopolis! was not Los Angeles, food production and fabrication, or the changing nature of architecture and urbanism but the Banquo at the feast that is the GFC itself (an ugly acronym which does not possess the elegance, power or appropriate levels of heartbreak as the term ‘Great Depression’ it seems to me.)
As noted I was struck by the intensity of focus on this subject, sometimes in maudlin hand-wringing fashion, sometimes with due concern and trepidation, and sometimes as an inspiration for actively and creatively trying to shape better things. It’s not quite the same in Sydney, a city half the size of LA but with much in common. The wheels of creative destruction turn slower here in Australia, which is both good and bad. Most people would not yet be arguing that there’s little or no future in daily newspapers, most mining, broadcast advertising models and much broadcast media, most domestic commercial aviation, speculator-driven property development, private education, shopping malls, supermarkets, big cars, big houses and Nicole Kidman. Or more importantly, that we should “resist the recovery”, as Bratton put it, and that perhaps much of the world needs this change. Much of Australia hasn’t felt the sharp end yet and may be meandering along a little too comfortably, perhaps buffered by China. Perhaps. Though China, of course, already has a very different economic and political model. It would be ironic if Australia were left last man standing with an un-reconstructed 'western-style' neo-liberal economic model due to its trade relationship with China. Although Rudd's government is possibly beginning to move things on - witness the brave and ambitious decision to build a government-led FTTP national broadband network, announced while I was in LA - the scale and complexity of change required is daunting.
When he was Treasurer, Paul Keating, who would later become Prime Minister of Australia, famously said of the early ‘90s recession that it was “the recession Australia had to have”. Well, I suspect this might actually be the one. However. It would be insensitive to stress this point given that tens of thousands of Australians have already lost their jobs.
I realised during this week in Los Angeles that the USA was already being hammered by recession to a far greater degree. perhaps as it had gone bigger and deeper than anywhere else in the first place. Yet this meant that some were thinking about alternative futures to a far greater degree than elsewhere too. To some degree that is coinciding with the Obama effect - how wonderful to hear his speeches sampled in hip-hop all around - though whether he can, or wants to, go far enough isn't clear. In a decent attempt to reimagine the American character - though even I might say written in overly-optimistic fashion - Kurt Anderson notes that aspects of the 'Obama effect' (which would be as temporary as the Bilbao effect anyway) have been put on the back-burner given the need to get on with business. Or get on with reconfiguring what business is. But he's doing the right thing fairly often e.g. General Motors e.g. high-speed rail etc. Government is there to lead, not merely reactively heal over market failure, and this combination of Obama + GFC is leading in potentially interesting directions. Outside of government or other macro-scale movements, perhaps more so.
I understood this intellectually before I arrived, but to see it and hear it in situ was often compelling. I had not thought that witnessing or even partaking in some of these conversations and thought-processes would be a thrilling, unforeseen and personally valuable side-effect of the event. For this I am grateful.
This sensation was most clearly articulated in Benjamin Bratton’s talk, which was the curtain-raiser on our final day on the rooftop of The Standard. I’ve written that one up and Bratton’s kindly agreed that we could re-post his talk in full, so do go and have a read. I think it will continue to resonate for some time. Geoff noted that Bratton’s profile had been framed in the late-afternoon sun by a giant Citibank logo on a ‘scraper behind him. While we're doing landscape irony, over Bratton’s left shoulder was the gleaming cylon-esque form of the Bonaventure hotel, which Fredric Jameson had pronounced the icon of late-capitalism in his landmark 1988 essay ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’. A building as theoretical signifier of a theory about signifiers. Bratton noted that:
“As Zizek was fond of saying, quoting Jameson talking about blockbuster sci-fi movies featuring exploding aliens and cities, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. Perhaps that is less so today.”
Quite so. But if late capitalism might now be late as in parrot, we have work to do. The Bonaventure, which was the structure that instantly cut me off from the street on my first day in Los Angeles, sat there across the urban airspace, stubbornly glaring at us throughout the week. Whether it exemplifies or resists late-capitalism I'll leave to the professional theorists, but I recall it also features as a silent signifier in William H. Whyte's quietly powerful book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, not directly referenced in the text but sitting there glowering on the page nonetheless, amidst his impassioned chapter on megastructures:
"One feels somewhat disembodied in these spaces. Is it night? Or day? Spring? Or winter? And where are you? You cannot see out of the place. You do not know what city you are in, or if you are in a city at all. The complex could be at an airport or a new town. It could be in the East or the West. The piped music gives no clue. It is the same as everywhere. You could be in a foreign country or on a space satellite. You are in a universal controlled environment. And it is going to date very badlly. Forms of transportation and their attendant cultures have historically produced their most elaborate manifestations just after they have entered the period of their obsolescence. So it may be with the megastructures and the freeway era that bred them. They are the last convulsive embodiment of a time passing, and they are a wretched model for the future of the city." [From The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte]
Quite so again. Whyte was writing that almost 30 years ago and Bonaventure and the freeways are still there - this is a problem with hard infrastructure - but I take great solace in the fact that Postopolis! LA was going on right under its nose, and that many of the protagonists were carving out far more interesting, useful and exciting futures for the city.
Yet after Bratton and Moeller the format for the rest of the evening comprised of panels. With Postopolis! New York, this was the one aspect that arguably didn’t work. There the last day felt a bit shambolic, which was probably more of a reflection on us organisers than the panellists. Here, the panels largely worked. The first, on new media art, didn’t fire on all cylinders perhaps, but the subsequent panels were largely fascinating. I won’t attempt to annotate these however. Reviewing a single speaker is tricky enough; a quick-fire panel of between 3 and 5 contributors, 1 or 2 moderators and audience Q&A is beyond me. Suffice to say I gleaned a lot from the media and photography panels in particular, and the last session with the editors of Dwell and Good magazines also worked well.
The turnout for the last day was great, as it had been all week, so thanks again. However, our plans for a grand closing party were foiled somewhat by the venue. But they’ve been gracious hosts for most of the week so we can’t complain too much. Apologies to those who wanted to hear Jace Clayton DJing again (but to those who were hoping to hear Dwell editor Sam Grawe's promised balearic stylings, you might have been better off without.) The event dissipates with a gracious 'thank you to all' from Storefront director Joseph Grima, and people drift off into the night. Most of us organisers actually hang around on the rooftop for a while, slightly dazed but happily chattering away, slowly beginning to relax and unwind, cold fingers gripping glasses of rapidly chilling red wine. It's almost as if we can’t leave the place, or don’t want to. We’re all so happy with the week that we feel we could just carry on. Do another week just like it. After a day off perhaps.
If I'd criticise elements of the week, I'm a little disappointed we didn't manage to get more representation of a Latino view on the city and its landscape (save Rochas perhaps, and Michael Dear, though I'm not either 'qualify' as such). Still we don't want to be tokenistic about such things. We had a few technical hitches but then it's all done for not-much-money, as if you couldn't tell, so that's going to happen. The temperature was of course ridiculous at times. In terms of the online distribution of the event, I though the Twitter feed was particularly good (thanks Geoff), and although our blog entries could've got up quicker, I like the fact they're delayed. Someone commented on one of my posts that 'it's almost like there was more information in there than the actual talk'. Well, that's the idea. You can't approach the sensation of being there, but you can at least add context, analysis, links and your own take on such things. This will slow the process down (as you'll see, when my reviews of this thing are still emerging a few weeks from now) but I hope it's better for it. Anyway, these quibbles aside, I'm personally really happy with how Postopolis! LA turned out..
Thanks so much to all the speakers who contributed their time and thoughts; to the audience who braved the cold (who knew LA could even get that chilly?), as well as those watching the live streams, Twitter feeds and blogs; huge thanks to my fellow curators and co-hosts at BLDGBLOG, Subtopia, We Make Money Not Art, Mudd Up! and ArchDaily - we had a blast; to ForYourArt for all their help in supporting the event and The Standard for hosting; and to the Storefront for Art & Architecture extended crew for performing above and beyond the call of duty again, playing away from home this time; and to director Joseph Grima in particular, for making it all happen.
I’ll now concentrate on getting all these other notes online, and you might also read various summings-up, across numerous blogs, websites and news outlets elsewhere, and from the Postopolis! LA team themselves e.g. Bryan’s rather poetic post-PostOps post, Regine’s various great summary posts (days 1, 2, 4 and 5), Geoff's thanks and narrative planetarium, ArchDaily’s reflections and so on. There’s more to come here, but for now, until the next time …